Last year was a great year of running for me. I maintained a daily mile streak, and at least one official marathon each calendar month (16 in total). PBs fell all over the shop, and every time I did better than I thought it gave me the confidence to try harder. This year, not so much. It was bound to be a slightly fallow year in comparison, but (to continue the agricultural metaphor) whereas grass can still grow through paving stones running results don’t happen without actually running. And running has really not happened.
As I lined up for my second attempt at the North Downs 100 in August, having been unable to run a number of training races I was hoping to because of work commitments, I realised that I hadn’t finished an official marathon or even added a medal of any kind to my collection since London in April. Not that that’s such a long time between races, but for someone used to being the Mr T of running medals it gnawed at me. As it turned out, the North Downs Way 100 didn’t result in an official finish either so I headed towards the end of August feeling slightly less fabulous than I’d like to, not to mention heavier and less graceful than ever, and I missed the trail miles. So, I scanned teh interwebs for something nearby, low key, muddy and fun, and found the inaugural Woldingham Marathon. In three days’ time.
The route is a two lap loop which covers a couple of hills from the North Downs Way, and helpfully diverts to the one massive hill on the Vanguard Way where the two bisect in the middle too, before looping back to the start/finish in Woldingham School. The diversion up Oxted Downs is really only there to make up miles and offer physical and psychological torture, since all you do when you get to the top is go straight back down again and carry on along the rest of the route (also uphill), and this particularly simplistic brand of sadism is half the fun. Plus, it means the route is shaped kind of like a bum, cleft and all, and who doesn’t like tracing rude pictures with their runs?
It was exactly what I needed. I arrived at the school vaguely entertaining ideas of a four and a half hour finish, then recognised the area, and quickly downshifted my expectations through five hours, five and a half hours and not looking at the time at all. And then I bumped into fellow Chaser Alex Visram who, in preparation for the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (the Japanese UTMB, so even madder) had signed up for what he delicately called a “training run”. We bought on the day entries, drank coffee and caught up with a few familiar faces, then fifty or so runners (and one dog) doing either the one-lap half marathon or the two-lap full took off with the bang of the starters pistol (an unexpected bonus to the organisers who seemed as surprised as we did to hear it).
Alex and I started off together but it became painfully obvious that he was running well within his easy pace. He was kind enough to keep me company for a good half lap though, including up to the top of Oxted Downs and back down again, coaching me through my recent running woes all the way. Alex is one of the Clapham Chasers’ ultra kings and full of good advice on how to get through a race, although as one might expect from a seasoned ultrarunner his advice is pretty no-nonsense. I told him about my issues with nausea and fear of sickness through the North Downs 100, and his response didn’t pull any punches. “Jaz, if you want to run 100 miles somewhere along the way you have to accept that being sick is part of it. You can’t be put off by stuff like that. It’s like saying you don’t want to run long distances because you’re afraid of getting blisters.” It was sort of brutal and sort of liberating at the same time, hearing that. It reinforced a perspective that I viewed for the first time just a few weeks before – my ability to finish a 100 miler is a matter of choice. Either I want it enough that I’ll get over the unpleasant details, or I don’t want it enough. That’s all there is to it.
As we neared Titsey Hill he spied a regular rival a few paces ahead, and decided that as he wasn’t going for the win today he at least wanted to finish ahead of this guy, and off he went – zoom. There was actual dust at his heels, and this was a rainy day. This same stretch had been torture to me just three weekends before, an exposed plain by the side of the M25 with a singletrack barely wide enough for two feet, which under the height of summer sun seems to take forever to cover. Today it was a totally different story – refreshing, slightly treacherous but in a fun way, a flat stretch providing temporary relief from the climb-them-don’t-walk-them hills. As I made my way into the clearing by the Titsey Plantation I fell into step with a gentleman who was no more eager to run uphill than me, and we chatted to distract ourselves from the task.
Geoff – a colourblind surgeon, and veteran runner who was preparing for his first ultra in September after having run his first marathon in 1981 – was a fascinating companion, and we were well on our way back to the start/finish point before I noticed how much time had passed. It felt quite a lot like a social trail run, rather than a race; at least, I was treating it that way. I needed to rediscover the love of running itself, and dissociate the fear of failure from the act of the exercise. Focusing on the more social part of the activity sort of hit my reset button.
We talked at length about his career as a reconstructive surgeon, and I asked all manner of daft questions:
“Does being colourblind affect your work, when you’re doing intricate things like veins and arteries?”
“Well no, arteries and veins are different sizes anyway…” *looks at me as if I’m retarded* “What’s the worst job you ever had to do?”
“Skin grafts on burned children.” *awkward silence*
As time passed we realised each of us were dragging the other person along by turns, and that overall we were pretty much bob on the same pace, so as we climbed Titsey Hill the second time we agreed to finish together come what may.
As we passed the water station the final time with three miles to go, the volunteers told me I was currently fourth lady. It was the first time I’d really considered our positions in the context of the race. Gentleman Geoff urged me to push on, but since there wasn’t anyone behind us for miles and (I reasoned) there were probably only five women in the race anyway I preferred to stick with the plan to finish together hand in hand, and that’s exactly what we did. A watershed moment in the year that running forgot, I bagged a medal, a friend and a race that I enjoyed all the way through. I just can’t get bored of tootling around the Surrey hills and chatting and eating biscuits – and the silly thing is, I already know that abstract achievements like this drive me more than calculable results ever have. Not to mention ticking off another marathon on the list to 100; another huge moment, considering the last time I’d officially done that was April. I’d started to wrestle back control.
So Woldingham was almost as impulsive a marathon as it’s possible to get, but it was absolutely worth it. On the other hand, the Suunto Run Wimbledon marathon had been on the cards since July when I was drawn in by a Facebook advert for the inaugural race. The race was four squiggly laps around the common, offering 10k, half marathon, solo marathon and relay marathon options. Nearby and low-key, mostly offroad (I assumed), sponsored by my favourite brand of running watch, something about free marshmallows. Yep, sign me up.
It would also be a good opportunity to get out the headtorch; the race was due to start at 4pm on the Saturday meaning that the second half would be run after dusk, under cover of trees which blocked out what little moonlight broke through the clouds, in effectively pitch darkness. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to running on little or no sleep but I do love a race in the dark, especially one that starts late and necessitates an afternoon nap. And that’s pretty much all I knew about it until the Wednesday before. Once again, my failure to do race research would define my experience.
As I warmed up in the start/finish area in a clearing near the Windmill, I bumped into another Chaser trail regular Igor, who was returning to running with a stab at the half marathon after a busy year creating new human beings. Sticking with the theme of “this is a social run with a medal, not a race” we covered the first two laps together in a comfortable but not easy 2:05, chatting the whole way through about life, the universe and everything. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, moved to the US and there became a citizen before settling in the UK, Igor is a fascinating person to talk to/interrogate with daft questions; we covered Brexit, global economics, parenthood, the two hour marathon, America optimism vs Russian cynicism and why Turkish people are so charmingly blunt, all with the help of natural daylight. After the second lap I waved Igor on his way, downed a gel and set up my torch for the remainder of the race, as dusk was threatening to descend at a moment’s notice. And then I realised I needed the loo.
As if someone had switched the lights off we were plunged into darkness for lap three, apart from the half mile or so around the A3 subway lit by sodium lamps (frankly, I preferred the darkness) and it became more important than ever to watch where my feet were going. Igor and I had both had a couple of near misses even when the light was good, so there was no need for heroics; then again, the pressure was growing in my bladder with at least an hour to the next possible loo stop so I didn’t exactly want to dawdle. Being a lap race it was difficult to tell where in the field I was (although I assumed it must be a way towards the back) and the 10k and half marathon runners were mostly finished by this point. With the exception of a girl from the 100 Marathon Club who I caught up with a couple of times then gave up trying to follow, I found myself basically on my own.
When I got to the end of lap three I was flagging a little, having pretty much run 20 miles on one gel, and I passed the timing mat around 3:20. Not great, but not a disaster. I pulled over to ask one of the marshals if I could use the loo without being disqualified and she stared at me with horror. While I wondered if I’d broken some sort of running etiquette by asking to use the loo, she composed herself enough to ask if I had another lap to go.
“Yeah, this is my third. One more to go.”
“Well… you can use the loo, but the cutoff is four hours. Are you going to be finished by then?”
It took me a moment to a) process that she was asking if I’d finish the RACE within four hours not the toilet trip and b) that she was asking if I would finish a 6.5 mile lap, in the dark, in the woods, in under 40 mins. I admitted that I would not. “So, will I be allowed to finish?”
She had to go and find the race director to get confirmation that I’d be allowed to continue while I waited for an agonising 5 minutes, during which I was even too afraid to leave the timing area for the loo in case I’d missed another crucial rule. How did I miss that the cutoff for the race was 4 hours? I definitely didn’t remember seeing it before I’d signed up, as even Optimistic Jaz wouldn’t be that reckless, and I racked my memory for a clue in the race day instructions I’d read before coming out. I remembered (and a little bit ignored) the headphones rule, I remembered deciphering the squiggly map, I remembered that there was no food or gel on offer but that there would be water… then I vaguely remembered a comment about being done in 8 hours so the organisers could go to the pub and thinking how generous that was. Bit of mental arithmetic followed: 4pm plus 8 hours does not equal being able to go to the pub. In retrospect, I reasoned, perhaps the rule was actually “finish by 8pm”. Ah.
Eventually I got a reassurance that I could continue and officially finish, but there would be no medical assistance and no marshals. Not a problem to me, a seasoned night-time runner and part-time Womble, but it got me to thinking how you could expect the last finisher to finish within four hours; and moreover why wouldn’t you advertise that more before you even take anyone’s money? Four hours is pretty punchy for an off-road marathon, half of which is in the dark; although arguably only by today’s standards. I thought about veteran Chaser Rob who started running marathons in the early 80s when he admitted to often coming plum last despite finishing in under three and a half hours. I didn’t really have the right to get angry at the organisers, I told myself, when I hadn’t even read the instructions properly. I even considered pulling out halfway through the final lap so as not to make anyone hang around too long, but eventually decided the best I could do would be to finish what I’d started.
Dragging myself through the inevitable 20 mile crash (one Gu gel and three Shot Bloks in, I now realise it was also the least well fuelled marathon I’d ever run) I tried to push as hard as my legs would allow while still maintaining some control. I switched from audiobook to upbeat ska punk (thank God for the staple Less Than Jake playlist) and ploughed on, with absolutely no other runners, no marshals, no people at all in sight. Even if I didn’t officially finish and get my bling, it would be important to me to overcome my doubts and finish, to prove to that negative voice in my head that it didn’t rule me. I skipped along to the blaring music through the eastern edge of the common, over ground that forms part of the Wimbledon parkrun lap, enjoying the familiarity and pretending it was a summer Saturday morning. And then everything was suddenly black and silence.
Where am I? You’re face down in the soil on Wimbledon Common.
Why do my hands hurt? Uh, you Supermanned it. Covered a good 6 feet gliding along the floor. Probably.
How? A tree root, I imagine. What else? Dickhead.
Holy fuck why can’t I hear anything am I deaf- No, you’re not. You landed on your iPod shuffle and paused it. Also you bruised your hip landing on the iPod. But check the iPod first.
My knees are screaming they’re going to fall off. No, they’re not. But they’re pretty bruised too.
I picked myself up and tested the weight on my fragile joints; adrenalin coursed through me so I couldn’t really feel what was damaged and what wasn’t, and that seemed like good enough reason to coast on it while it lasted, so I restarted my music and carried on running. My right hand in particular was pretty badly cut – two gouges caused by hitting a piece of branch on the floor had been stuffed with soil from the momentum of my fall, and nothing I could do would get it out. There wasn’t any help except at the end, so the end was where I needed to get. I laughed at myself remembering the last fall I’d had was another Superman slide along Wimbledon Common, a quarter of a mile up the trail, running the Wimbledon Half Marathon earlier this year. I’m nothing if not consistent.
The adrenalin did its thing – I ploughed on at something slightly faster than walking pace, crossed the finish line to a one-man reception who handed me my medal (yay!), my marshmallows (double yay!) and a sympathetic smile. I thanked him and asked if there were many more people to come. “No dear. Just you.” And that was how I got my first ever last finisher. All those times I freaked out about being the last person on the course when I first started running in 2012; I couldn’t help but giggle. Having done it, it was actually sort of liberating.
When Chasers’ results guru Graham Sutherland posted up his weekly roundup on Monday evening it was the first time I’d even considered my race position (except for being, you know, DEAD LAST), so I was pretty surprised to discover that I was aso technically second lady. That’s right – the 100 Marathon Club girl that I had been trying to keep up with was the only other girl doing the full marathon. This lofty accolade was confirmed a couple of weeks later when I went to the Post Office to pick up what I thought was a parcel of bedding, and discovered instead an amazing 25l running backpack/drybag and a handful of Buffs as my second lady prize. I’ve never got a podium position before either, so getting both that and the wooden spoon in the same race deserves a prize of its own, I think. And I suppose, in finally regaining my sense of humour, I did. Which is the best possible prize I could have picked up.
On reflection, I got to the end of 2015 feeling a little tired but overall pretty fit, and like a much better person than I used to be; not so many temper tantrums or panic attacks, with a more positive perspective in general. The new job and the tiredness (and the partner increasingly worried that I’d joined some sort of exercise cult) persuaded me that I needed to dial back a little and recharge this year, whereupon the first thing that happened was a classic overuse injury, my first ever. Was this the delayed effect of last year’s exertions or was it because I’d stopped doing daily exercise that had previously helped ward off niggles and promoted faster recovery? In February, I’d have been easily persuaded that it was the former; now, the latter seems unquestionably true, especially corroborated by other daily run streak runners I know. Because it’s what I want to believe. I want to believe that running a mile or more every day and a marathon every month is good for me physically, because psychologically it turned my life around. That part isn’t in question at all for me, as anyone who knows me knows what a grumpy cow I’ve been this year. Running every day makes me happy. Or at least, it makes me hate the world and everyone in it marginally less.
On a slightly more sophisticated level, I have to acknowledge that happiness also comes from a sense of achievement where success is measured against expectation. All year I’ve had my expectations set somewhere between where they were last November when I was in much better shape, and the moon; no wonder that I was struggling to reach any of the targets I’d set and have been consequently feeling deflated. In my mind I was prepared or the fact that this year would be a bit of a plateau and hadn’t planned to go for any big goals or expect the leaps and strides I had last year – treating the whole year more like a rest and recovery period, I suppose – but in my heart I was still persuading myself that I should go for a 3:35 marathon and finish a 103 mile trail race on a month of no rest. A perfect recipe for unhappiness.
So how do I get happy? Trusting in my year out, making the rest and recovery work for me not the other way round, making decisions by looking at what I want to achieve not from FOMO are all good starts. The sense of humour, that’s the clincher. This shit is meant to be FUN. In the spirit of which (don’t laugh) I’ve decided to focus on the Centurion 50 milers next year before even considering upgrading to a 100 again – although, because I’m a borderline compulsive, I’m going for the four race grand slam (obviously) – and I’ve asked for help this time too. My early New Year’s Resolution will simply be to give myself a realistic target and trust in the awesome support network that the Chasers offers. After “eat more cake” that’s about as easy a resolution to keep as there is.
I mean, I love running. We all do. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?